Global special operations to counter global threats

The United States recently released a massive defense budget that helps sustain our military, which is second to none. However, budget analysis reveals the growing disconnect between the hybrid security threats we face and our paradigm of resourcing a conventional force structure with limited support to the current fight. 

Five years after the United States left Iraq, ISIL and Al Qaeda operate with near impunity throughout parts of the country, the fragile central government unable to mobilize a competent military response. Even Western powers are struggling to confront the Salafi jihadists because they are confounded by the unconventional nature of the threat. What’s needed are special operations forces (SOF), cyber and intelligence assets, yet our defense structure does not reflect the importance of these functions. Instead, these capabilities and assets remain buried under conventional defense bureaucracies.

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In 2014, Russia saw the world completely overwhelmed with the spread of Salafi jihadism and launched several well-planned and coordinated incursions into Ukrainian territory, starting with the Crimea. These incursions started long before media coverage of the events and the Russians used forces without uniforms and insignias. These hybrid Russian forces are often referred to as “Little Green Men” and their ability to rapidly take control of strategic locations overwhelmed the conventional Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainians never stood a chance against the Russian hybrid forces. Shortly after taking the Crimea, Russia used many of the same tactics, capabilities, and assets to respond to ethnic unrest in the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine pushed their SOF into the breach impressively – however reached its limitations without Joint SOF Command to control the fight.

Similarly, China challenges conventional national security in the South China Sea by leveraging fishing boats to bolster their presence in the region while creating islands with Chinese military personnel that constitute new, fortified footholds in this hotly disputed region. Traditional media coverage includes Chinese warships and hardware marching through the streets in a grand parade but you rarely see the thousands of Chinese fishing boats or hybrid forces conducting operations in the South China Sea.

Naturally, our adversaries use our size and strengths against us as expected from a weaker but intelligent opponent seeking an advantage. The U.S. defense budget reflects a desire to incrementally improve or amplify legacy conventional platforms that provide limited use against hybrid and unconventional threats. Over the last 10 years SOF has seen a tremendous rise in support from our national leadership but SOF is a long way from getting what is needed to meet the current security requirements. A simplistic view that SOF is better resourced than years past fails to properly align resources and requirements.  SOF deployments exceed Joint Staff directives and the request for SOF drastically exceeds their capacity.  SOF is allocated 1.5 – 3.5 percent of the defense budget, not proportional to its size and the importance of those missions.

The U.S. can’t grow enough SOF to meet all of the demand. The only way we can meet the threats and maintain a ready SOF is to grow our international SOF partners and give them the same level of capability.  Less than 20 nations maintain SOF with the capacity to deploy and sustain operations globally. Even fewer can de-conflict and synchronize activities with their partners at the global level. The fact is, global SOF is a critical component in current and future conflicts and nowhere near required size and global capability.

Where is the desire in the U.S. to raise the number of nations with SOF that can operate globally? Is making partner SOF interoperable so multinational forces can fight as one a priority? Where is the desire to posture SOF in conflict areas to support development? Who has the mandate to lead this global effort? If you look around you will not see anyone moving forward to first highlight the problem and then develop a plan to unite SOF. The Global SOF Foundation (GSF) is filling that void.

The GSF has well over 1,000 individual members from 43 nations and we are growing 2 – 3 people a day. Our social media presence is rapidly growing and people are learning of the GSF by word of mouth. One of the first things the foundation faces is getting the nations together to start the discussion on what we should do as a community.

Bradin is the president and CEO of the Global SOF Foundation. Keeler-Pettigrew is the chief operating officer and Yoho is vice president at the Global SOF Foundation.